The release of GNOME 3.0, the popular desktop's first major release in eight years, promises to be the major free software event in autumn 2010. Where is GNOME now? What can we expect of GNOME 3.0? Of GNOME 3 as a series of releases?
When I asked Stormy Peters, the executive director of the GNOME Foundation, where to go for answers, she directed me to Vincent Untz. A director of the GNOME Foundation and one of the senior members of the GNOME Release Team, Untz is better positioned than almost anyone to offer an overview of the project from both a general and a technical perspective.
The release last March of GNOME 2.30 marks the end of a series of releases that dates back to June 2002. Asked to characterize the GNOME 2 series, Untz described it as "an evolution rather than a revolution. If you compare GNOME 2.30 to GNOME 2.28, for example, you'll see small differences. But if you compare GNOME 2.30 to 2.12, say, there's a huge world of difference between the two, and that's what most people don't see."
According to Untz, GNOME 3.0 will have three main directions for the desktop. First, much as KDE redefined itself as a community rather than a desktop, GNOME will emphasize its ecosystem of applications more, rather than just the desktop.
"People think of GNOME as one big thing, but we think that's wrong," Untz says. "So what we're trying to do is define GNOME as two different things: the core, which is all those programs that the user should not really care about, and then the applications, which is what the users should care about. By doing this, we think we will bring more value and interest to the users. They will have a better experience."
Partly, this new emphasis will be a matter of marketing and of raising awareness. However, Untz emphasizes that it will also include "trying to be more inclusive throughout the general GNOME community" and making the process of of becoming a GNOME application easier on both the technical and the administrative level within the project.
The second priority is accessibility -- tools like the Orca screen reader for the visually impaired. Part of the reason for this priority, Untz says, "is that we are doing a great job of that, and accessibility is important for a lot of markets. If you look at all the desktops -- not just the free ones, but all the desktops -- GNOME is one of the most accessible out of the box. For example, Windows is lacking some tools that we have out of the box."
Another reason for the priority is that GNOME's accessibility stack is switching from using Corba and moving to D-Bus. Although this change is largely invisible to users, it represents a major transition from a programming perspective -- so much so that the change, which was supposed to happen in GNOME 2.30, was delayed until GNOME 3.0 to ensure its stability. It is further delayed by the need to develop a new integration library called Cally for Clutter, an interface library that key aspects of GNOME 3.0 depend upon.
The advantage of these behind-the-scenes alterations is that, in GNOME 3.0, the accessibility tools will work with applications from KDE and other desktops. "As of today," Untz explains, "if you open a KDE application in GNOME, it won't be accessible. Or, if you open a GNOME application in KDE, it won't be accessible. By working on this, the GNOME community is trying to open new doors to other projects. Actually, it was designed with people from other projects."
However, by far the most obvious change in GNOME 3.0 is a move from the 2.x series' emphasis on usability, as embodied in the Human Interface Guides that GNOME applications are supposed to follow to a higher-level perspective that Untz calls the user experience.
Untz explains the difference by saying, "Usability is a sub-set of the user experience. So the user experience is not just about usability. It's about the whole feeling of the desktop."